DVD Reviews - A Quartet of Science and Exploration DVDs

      Date posted: March 29, 2004

Cosmic Voyage
Cosmic Voyage
Bailey Silleck, writer & director
Warner Home Video/IMAX; 4:3 Aspect Ratio; Dolby Digital 5.1, English & French; English, French, Spanish & Portuguese Subtitles; 40 Minutes + Featurette

Mission To Mir
Ivan Galin, James Niehouse, directors; Warner Home Video/IMAX; 4:3 Aspect; Dolby Digital 5.1, English & French; English, French, Spanish & Portuguese Subtitles; 40 Minutes + Featurette

Destiny In Space
Written & Edited by Toni Myers (no director’s credit); Warner Home Educational DVDs Video/IMAX; Dolby Digital 5.1, English & French; English, French, Spanish & Portuguese Subtitles; 40 Minutes + Featurette

Into The Deep: Close Encounters of the Oceanic Kind
Howard Hall, director; Warner Home Video/IMAX; Dolby Digital 5.1, English & French; English, French, Spanish & Portuguese Subtitles; 35 Minutes + Featurette

     I guess you’d call these films “soft” educational, all of them cereal-bowl size with lots on the screen and in the speakers to keep a Science class quiet for almost an hour. I saw the last one in IMAX 3D, and it was spectacular, especially the roving shark that almost swims into the theatre. Believe me, every body in the Luxor Theatre ducked, myself included. But more on that later.
These films are a kind of industry for Science Centres, Natural History Museums, and other places where kids get bused in March. There also IMAX theatres in many multiplexes these days, but not too many Rolling Stones features to keep them busy.

     The current crop here are some of my favourites for relaticely short-term big screen watching, the totally immersive sound a particular attraction. All have been carefully transferred to video from 70mm submasters of the original IMAX prints, with full sound remixes to suit the 5.1 format; as you may know, there are also high and low channels in the IMAX experience for more precise placement of events on the huge screen.

     Because most home theatre screens these days are 16:9, the 4:3 presentation can be a concern, but I find that the ZOOM feature on most displays is the preferred option. The image quality is so good that it happily survives the small crop at top and bottom, and because of the vastness of the IMAX screen for which they were originally shot, there is little real visual information in the top and bottom 10% of the picture, and if your screen has 5% overscan like mine, even less is lost. Cinema Wide also works well, its own distortions at screen edge often lost in those of the IMAX cameras, especially at close range inside shuttles and space stations.
Another consideration is that these films are non-anamorphic, and on some displays, such as RPTVs and fixed pixel devices, some diagonal shimmer is visible, and this may be annoying on some in non-progressive play. On many displays, using progressive scan locks the image into anamorphic mode, widening everything to fill the screen laterally. The shimmer should be a concern only on screens larger than 50″.

     One of the key elements of the IMAX formula is star narrators (remember Walter Cronkite in The Dream Is Alive?) with sufficient acting and inflection skills to keep the little buggers at the Science Centre awake with the spitballs still in their pockets.

     In Cosmic Voyage, the stentorian voice belongs to Morgan Freeman, who conducts a voyage through time and space starting in Venice and extending way out into the cosmos and back. The animation is the real star of this fascinating (if abridged) version of space science, “extending from the surface of earth to the largest observable structures of the universe, and then back to the subnuclear realm - a guided tour across 42 orders of magnitude!”. However, “stentorian” is the wrong word, for Freeman is a gentle leader through the largest and smallest mysteries of being in a very well organized thumbnail sketch of what we know about ourselves and everything around us. It is the animated special effects, from the Big Bang to Black Holes that tell the story in the bigger context, and a regression through a virtual microscope to DNA and Quarks beyond, and particle explosions in the Fermi accelerator near Chicago. These animated sequences, which make up much of the film, are said to be scientifically and graphically correct to the limits of recent (post-Hubble) knowledge.

     What young children will make of all this, who knows, but most adults will appreciate the breadth of science, and be as much interested in seeing life around us on earth as in voyaging to space. Like Into The Deep, Cosmic Voyage was shot in IMAX 3D, and should be a truly memorable theatre experience.

Into the deep

     Into The Deep is as good a companion to Cosmic Voyage, as it takes us beneath the oceans for miles, where wondrous forms of life, many self-illuminated, have existed for millions of years. Here the voiceover is caressed by Canadian actress Kate Nelligan, with her similarly sympathetic wonder at the sights of the deep rendered in her beautiful Canadian-flavoured mid-Atlantic speech. Her skills as an actress are used to give us a sense of being in this forbidding place as a welcome guest.

     This transfer has very little jerkiness with diagonal lines, and also has quite a bit of depth to the picture. However, there is no Featurette, just a brief promo for IMAX movies in general on DVD. In The Big Picture Collection boxed set of McGillivray Freeman films (The Living Sea, The Magic of Flight, Dolphins, Stormchasers, and The Discoverers), the making-of featurettes are often longer than the movies, and give extensive insights into the technology and effort required to put IMAX cameras in difficult places (planes, boats, submersibles, and so on). No such luck here. It looks like Warner has taken over the product from Image Entertainment, and reduced the level of extras for the consumer. Hopefully the prices, too.

      As noted, Mission To Mir and Destiny In Space are a good pair for an evening’s watching, the latter narrated by Leonard Nimoy in a fashion that does harken back to Walter K. “We ARE in SPACE!”

     Destiny has a bittersweet taste to it, in that it is about the refitting of the Hubble telescope, which we now know will be left until it re-enters and burns up billions of dollars investment for want of billions more to keep it going (Dubya wants to spend the money to go to Mars, and I wish he would. “OHMYGOD!! politics in an audio/video magazine again…let’s send Conan O’Brian back to terrorize and divide the country!”).

     The Hubble might have 8 years (and I’ll refrain from commenting further in the previous context, since the implication is obvious), so I hope those galaxies at the edge of space creating solar systems in its lenses will continue to be visible long after this fall.

     I reviewed The Big Picture Collection in our Fall 01 issue (Vol. 20 #3), and it’s worth returning to, since you’re interested enough to have read this far about the other IMAX movies:
“It’s probably best to talk about Dolphins and The Living Sea together, both unified by Sting’s How Fragile We Are [as] theme. Pierce Brosnan narrates the former with urbane bonhommie, while Meryl Streep offers a quirky child-like artifice for the latter film that becomes quite annoying after half an hour.”
“Visually, both films are wonderful [and] the musical scores [by Sting] underline the natural settings.” “The overall sound of each is outstanding, especially in DTS.”

     ”Stormchasers is narrated by a folksy Hal Holbrook, while an equally relaxed Tom Selleck talks us through The Magic of Flight, keeping the G Forces under control.”

      “The surround on both films is simply awesome, with powerful bass from both nature’s fury and man’s jet power.”

     I own The Big Picture Collection mainly for these four films, and consider The Discoverers as bonus. If you’re into IMAX this box is still a must have.

Andrew Marshall

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